In the 90 years that I have been fortunate to spend on this earth there have been a number of events that still linger pleasantly in my mind; the year was 1956 and the place was Sarajevo.
Yugoslavia was still recovering from the effects of WW2, when it suffered great losses of life and property. Living was difficult and for many just staying alive was still their main concern under the new and untried socialist system. However the 50’s seemed to be the turning point as Yugoslavia became independent of Russia and other Eastern bloc countries.
I was visiting Yugoslavia for the first time, the only of my American born family to do so in two generations. As a second year university student at the time, I wished to explore my families’ heritage, I was bright eyed and full of wonder. I wasn’t sure what to expect but with much trepidation and resolve I was on my way across the Atlantic.
A small piece of advice; if possible, avoid entering a strange country in the middle of the night, especially a place like Yugoslavia in the 50’s! We crossed the border at Klagenfurt into the Slovenian city of Maribor at around 0530 on a train that should have been in retirement years before. The train, the sight of the dilapidated train station and the shabby dress of the people was not a good omen.
However there was one shining star, either overlooked or forgotten, perhaps remaining as an historical artefact of bygone bourgeoisie days. Never the less, there it sat proud on the train tracks of the old and crumbling Sarajevo train station, steaming away and ready to roll: Ciro.
There were only four or five cars to the train, all of which appeared to be originals from 1901. Despite the appearance of the train, unloved and slightly dishevelled it was a gleaming jewel to me. This little narrow gauge train, even at that time was becoming a thing of the past. There were only a few lines similar left in Europe however these also were slowly being shut down with the emergence of the newer, slicker and more economically viable locomotives of the future.
The conductor on the train also appeared to be dressed as of a bygone era however the red star on his cap bore the ubiquitous red star of a new socialist Yugoslavia. Once inside the train, I was impressed by its cleanliness and fresh space and went to find my seat. There were first class compartments with freshly painted wooden seats, covered in cushions to ease comfort on the long journey ahead.
Along with me in my compartment were a married couple. He was a member of the British consulate in Sarajevo, very reserved, revealing little about his job. They spoke very little during the journey, the husband a prime example of British conservatism! The only thing I learnt from them they were on their way to the Pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik for a holiday and very much looking forward to getting into the sea. They would be hosted at the Villa Dubrovnik while I would be searching for less glamorous accommodation.
The scenery out of the train window was far more alive and interesting than my present company. I decided to enjoy the fabulous views uninterrupted and was sure not to get distracted by idle chatter. The train chugged up and over the mountains after leaving Sarajevo, it was a truly glorious experience. We passed through some of the most wonderful landscape Yugoslavia had to offer on the way to Dubrovnik.
Lunch time came around and we made our way to the dining car where we were given separate tables and joined by other fellow passengers, Yugoslavs and a table of French speakers. The dining was something you see rarely on trains these days, it was an unexpected and joyous experience. The tables were covered with immaculate white linen cloths, adorned with vases of fresh flowers. The utensils were made of silver laid on more white linen napkins, the food served on fine porcelain china. The waiters wore cotton gloves and moved swiftly and quietly amongst the tables. Menus listed tempting dishes as enticing smells wafted gently from the kitchen. The veal cutlet I ordered lived up to its expectations, prepared a la vien with breading done to a wonderful crispness.
We were steadily winding our way toward Mostar through numerous tunnels and as the train weaved in and out of one hairpin bend after another, trundling along with little or no effort at all. We passed through unending pristine forests, pine maple and oak happily side by side. In amongst this stunning scenery were scattered villages, mainly Muslim folk judging by the minarets poking through the trees however there were many kilometres where not a human soul was in sight and the brown bear roamed freely. In one village as the train stopped I noticed a man with a muzzled bear being made to dance using the crack of a mean looking leather whip, it was the only incident that spoiled a beautiful and unforgettable journey.
The train was now beginning to descend from the mountains on its winding route, about to arrive in the historic city of Mostar. Mostar is a place of intriguing union, the two halves of the city divided in half by the infamous Stari Most or ‘old bridge’ built by the Turkish in the 14th century. On the Eastern side of the bridge live mainly Muslims while on the Western side Croats and Serbs among others. The transition in architecture between the two halves is striking. The Western half being strongly influenced by Western European taste, reflected in Austrian baroque architecture and attempts at modern architecture while the East is Turkish oriented, mosques and minarets dominating the skyline. Both sides are worthy of further investigation and as we begin steaming our way out of town I am left with a desire to return at a later date to explore further.
As we steadily make our way down the Velež mountains the scenery began to change. The thickly wooded slopes were disappearing as the trees became shrubs interspersed with the pointed shape of the cypress tree. Soon we were able to spot the odd palm tree and the lush land bore fruit. Figs, citrus and olive trees were now in view, the ground about them scattered with the bright white glare of the local limestone, almost blinding in the haze of the sun.
The buildings were made of this same stone surrounded by fields of reddish-brown earth in which were planted neat rows of grape vine covering every slope and piece of flat lands available, we had reached the Neretva valley. Obviously the locals were keen wine makers and hopefully drinkers also!
Now finally our descent to the sparkling blue sea and the great city of Dubrovnik. The organised town of Dubrovnik as a viable community goes back as far as Greek and Roman times. Indeed it was the Venetians who raped the mountains above Dubrovnik of their verdant oak forests, the wood driven into the muddy sea floor to create the foundations of Venice. At the time much of the Venetian naval and commercial fleet of ships were made of the same wood, one of the largest in Europe. Dubrovnik’s considerable fleet however gave Venice much unwanted competition. In the 13th century the city freed itself from Venetian control forming its own republic and electing a new ‘Knez’ (prince) every month, this system lasting until its dissolution in1808 under Napoleon. The city survived French and Austrian control while also staving off the threat of Turkish expansion by the clever diplomacy of bribing the Turks with gold!
Following the mouth of the Neretva River toward the sea offered us some of the most striking landscape in Europe. Rugged mountains plunging down to the coast like fjords, calm inlets open up to the clear blue-green Adriatic sea as islands beckon you farther afield.
At last I see the Pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik, its cream coloured walls rising majestically as if directly from the sea wearing a red tiled cap to cover its many inhabitants. Our little train slowly huffed and puffed to its final stop about 2 kilometres from the city. As the rush and flurry of passengers descended from the train we are greeted by the yammering of the local taxi drivers waving us towards their unusual cars, relics of the Austro-Hungarian era made infamous by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Huge, open topped monsters that looked ominous however in my excitement I felt adventurous enough to jump into one and so on to the city!
A short journey later we arrived at the Pile gate, the terminus for all vehicles coming into the old town, I disembarked and made my way across the ancient wooden drawbridge and through the gate, ambling down the well worn steps while admiring the grand walls rising above me. Passing through another smaller archway I was greeted with the incredible sight of the Stradun, Its white patina stone tiles stretching off into the city, surrounded by architectural magnificence I could only mumble a meagre ‘wow’, I was home.